Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control

The Teutonic knights, a military-religious order, brought the Baltic region under Catholic control and launched a series of military crusades against pagan peoples who had resisted conversion and assimilation.

Summary of Event

East Prussia early in the late thirteenth century lay between Poland and the Baltic Sea, bounded on the west and south by the Vistula River, on the southeast and east by the wilderness of the Masurian Lake district, on the north by the Nemunas (Memel) River. It was inhabited by eleven tribes related by language, culture, and religion to the inhabitants of Lithuania and southern Livonia (now Latvia). Pomerelia, or West Prussia, on the west bank of the Vistula, was inhabited by Slavs closely related to the Poles. Like Poland, Mecklenburg, and Pomerania, it was being settled rapidly by German immigrants who had been invited by the duke to settle in unpopulated areas. This aspect of the Drang nach Osten (push to the east) of the Germans was largely peaceful—in contrast to the crusading effort associated with the twelfth century Wendish Crusade and the later crusade led by the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and even later into Lithuania. [kw]Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control (1228-1231)
[kw]Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control, Teutonic (1228-1231)
[kw]Baltic Region Under Catholic Control, Teutonic Knights Bring (1228-1231)
[kw]Catholic Control, Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under (1228-1231)
Teutonic Knights
Christianity;Baltic region
Baltic region;Christianity
Germany;1228-1231: Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control[2340]
Expansion and land acquisition;1228-1231: Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control[2340]
Government and politics;1228-1231: Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control[2340]
Organizations and institutions;1228-1231: Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control[2340]
Religion;1228-1231: Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control[2340]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1228-1231: Teutonic Knights Bring Baltic Region Under Catholic Control[2340]
Hermann Balke
Conrad of Masovia
Frederick II (1194-1250)
Gregory IX
Salza, Hermann von

Efforts at a peaceful conversion of the Prussian pagans Paganism;Prussia had failed. Earlier Slavic missionaries had become martyrs, while would-be Bishop Christian Christian (bishop of Prussia) was discovering that the pagans had no desire to abandon bigamy, exposure and death of female infants, and occasional human sacrifice. Meanwhile, in Livonia, German Crusaders were exploiting their technological and organizational superiority and the ancient rivalries of the local peoples to establish themselves at Riga, and King Valdemar II Valdemar II (r. 1202-1241) of Denmark was crushing Estonian resistance. The example of Bishop Albert of Riga (c. 1165-1229), of the Crusader conquest of Estonia and Livonia (1198-1227), persuaded Bishop Christian and Duke Conrad of Masovia Conrad of Masovia that they could organize a similar crusade, with similar success. In 1217, the pope gave his blessing to the project. From initial victories in 1219, everything went wrong—Duke Conrad could not provide an occupation force for his conquests, then could not protect his own lands from the vengeful Prussians; the Polish kingdom was entering a period of disarray, so that help from the king and other dukes was seldom available; and Prussian paganism, which was based on a military ethos, inspired its worshipers with enthusiasm for their gods’s ability to give them slaves and booty from among the worshipers of the Christian god. The pagan offensive reached even into Pomerelia.

Denmark crushed the Estonian resistance.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Unable to obtain adequate help from relatives and neighbors to repel the pagan onslaught, Duke Conrad again emulated the German model from Livonia by first attempting to found a crusading order of his own (the Dobriners), then in 1225 calling on established orders to come to his lands. Although a small number of Templars settled in Pomerelia, the only order to respond to the Masovian appeal was the Teutonic Order, and its commitment was small.

The Teutonic Order’s formal name was the Knights of the Hospital of Saint Mary of the Germans at Jerusalem, which tells much about their own views of their origin and purpose. Actually founded as a hospital order at Acre (Palestine) in 1189, it was converted into a military order in 1197; as a result, in English it is often called the Teutonic Knights. Der Deutsche Orden, its most common German name, means only the German Order. Der Deutschritterorden reflects a much later period when the grandmasters served the interests of the House of Habsburg. The gifted grandmaster Hermann von Salza Von Salza, Hermann oversaw the order’s expansion in numbers, wealth, and influence until he found it difficult to deploy the warriors in the few castles available to him in the Holy Land. In 1211, von Salza established convent-castles in Hungary to protect that kingdom from steppe warriors, but King Andrew II Andrew II fearing that the newcomers were becoming too powerful, expelled them in 1225. As a result, Hermann von Salza was hesitant to give a greater response to Duke Conrad’s invitation than to send a handful of knights to investigate the situation.

Frederick II Frederick II issued the Golden Bull of Rimini Golden Bull of Rimini (1226) in 1226, guaranteeing the order the protection of the Holy Roman Empire for its conquests. In 1228 and 1230, Duke Conrad signed agreements with the Teutonic Order granting the order ownership of any provinces they might conquer (apparently never anticipating that they would take more than a small area around Culm). Bishop Christian somewhat reluctantly made similar promises but came to a formal agreement only in 1231, after which he was captured by Prussians and thus vanished from the political scene for critical years. Pope Gregory IX Gregory IX eventually issued a crusading bull. In 1230, the first sizable contingent of Teutonic Knights arrived in Prussia under the command of Hermann Balke Hermann Balke .


The successes attained by the combined efforts of Polish, Pomerelian, and German Crusaders Crusades allowed the Teutonic Order to crush all but the most westerly tribes quickly. Also, while civil wars and the Mongol invasion of 1241 occupied the Polish dukes fully, Hermann Balke and his successors resettled the pagans in areas where they could be watched and Christianized, then attracted immigrant farmers and burghers to settle on vacant lands. Within a few decades, the Teutonic Knights had made their Prussian conquests into an independent state. By the time Duke Conrad and his heirs could protest, it was too late.

The papal legate, William of Modena William of Modena , who was active during these years in Prussia and Livonia, was a practical man. Though not approving of the actions of Hermann Balke, he was not about to dismantle the state in the middle of the continuing wars in Prussia and Livonia. The Crusaders were far from attaining ultimate victory in either theater, and if the Teutonic Order were dismissed or dissolved, no competing bishop or duke had the resources to govern the areas already conquered, preach the Crusade throughout a sufficiently wide area to raise a significant number of Crusaders, and then garrison the castles after the armies of volunteers had returned home. The Teutonic Knights, with their resources in the Holy Roman Empire, could do all these things and even send replacements for fallen knights when the inevitable military disasters occurred. As a result, Masovian and Pomerelian complaints were not so much dismissed as ignored.

In 1237, Hermann von Salza sent Hermann Balke with a force of Teutonic Knights to Livonia Livonia to rescue the situation there after the local crusading order (the Swordbrothers) was largely destroyed in battle by pagan Lithuanians Lithuania . In time that region came under the control of a semiautonomous branch of the Teutonic Knights called the Livonian Order. The principal distinguishing characteristic (other than the practicality of governing widely separated regions separately) was that the knights in Prussia generally spoke High German, those in Livonia Low German. To the end of the century, the grandmasters saw their order’s principal duty as the defense of the Holy Land, and it was only after the loss of Acre that the order’s resources in Italy, Germany, and Bohemia were used primarily to support its brethren in Prussia and Livonia.

Further Reading

  • Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. This work offers a comprehensive overview of the expansion of Europe during the period when the Teutonic Knights conducted their conquests.
  • Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and Catholic Frontier, 1100-1525. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980. Erudite and witty study of the period that is highly informative.
  • Henry of Livonia. The Chronicle. Translated by James A. Brundage. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961. One of the very best medieval chronicles. An eyewitness account of the missionary and Crusader era, 1186-1227.

  • The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. Translated by Jerry C. Smith and William L. Urban. Indiana University Publications, Uralic and Altaic Series 128. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. A useful primary source for the history of the Teutonic Knights.
  • Nicholson, Helen. Love, War, and the Grail. Boston: Brill, 2001. A study of the depictions of the Teutonic Knights, the Knights Templar, and the Knights Hospitaller in medieval literature. Details the actual history of the knights and compares it to how they have been represented.
  • Urban, William. The Baltic Crusade. Rev. ed. Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, 1994.
  • Urban, William. The Prussian Crusade. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1980. These two works provide complete narrative accounts of the activities of the Teutonic Order during this period.
  • Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2003. A complete history of the order, detailing the Knights’s campaigns, individual battles, and their struggle to maintain themselves as a power to be reckoned with.